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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Umsiyat review: Faiz Ali Faiz and Chicuelo bring spellbinding fusions to Mushrif park

Taking the fusion of two such entrenched musical traditions so very literally – two distinct ensembles, sharing the stage – really shouldn't work.
Faiz Ali Faiz, right, and Chicuelo performed with an ensemble in Mushrif Central Park on Wednesday,  January 27, 2016, in Abu Dhabi. The performance was part of the Umsiyat Series. Delores Johnson / The National
Faiz Ali Faiz, right, and Chicuelo performed with an ensemble in Mushrif Central Park on Wednesday, January 27, 2016, in Abu Dhabi. The performance was part of the Umsiyat Series. Delores Johnson / The National

This was no ordinary concert. As the assembled cast of nine musicians took the stage, the perhaps-unprepared audience had, one suspects, little idea what to expect – and the evening’s tantalising opening minutes were like the suggestive flashes of a new novel’s first few pages.

First, the lazy, Mediterranean chimes of a solo Spanish guitar echoes out across Mushrif Central Park. Gradually two harmoniums wheeze into the foreground, before a tabla begins a grinding rail-road rhythm propelling the players forward. Suddenly everything melts into an almighty chorus of devotional Sufi chanting, bellowing into the night sky. It’s both beautiful and betwixing.

The players are as divided by their dress as they are in posture. In the centre, seated on a chair with his leg stretched out onto a foot rest in the flamenco style, sits renowned guitarist Juan Gómez, best known as Chicuelo. To his left are seated two windswept singers – both clad in dark shirts, jackets, flowing scarfs round their necks – and the percussionist, who together make up Chicuelo’s flamenco ensemble.

Stage right holds a raised platform, where four robed men sit cross-legged, two with harmoniums at their knees. At the left end of the platform, out of uniform in bright yellow, sits Faiz Ali Faiz, one of the best known practitioners of qawwali, the devotional South Asian musical tradition which dates back to the first half of the last millennium. Faiz’s ensemble is completed by the tabla player, also cross-legged, at the far left of the stage.

Taking the fusion of two such entrenched musical traditions so very literally – two distinct ensembles, sharing the stage – really shouldn’t work. But despite the rousing, repetitive nature of the music, the arrangements are sympathetically arranged, with musical cues signaling the surprisingly seamless links between passages which showcase the never-trivial wares of both traditions.

Beyond a few arranged, jazz-esque percussive breakdowns, Faiz’s group have little to add to the sparsely aching atmosphere of Chicuelo’s effortlessly romantic flamenco. But the fusion really comes alive with the lengthy qawwali extrapolations. Clapping and chanting really is the most universal language, and in the communal Sufi tradition all nine members become equal contributors to the spiraling waves of spiritual sound. Nowhere was this clearer than Allah Hu, made popular by the great crossover success Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Faiz’s frequent reference point.

It’s a slightly smaller sound than the project’s original incarnation, which premiered more than a decade ago with a cast of 13 musicians, including noted flamenco names Duquende and Miguel Poveda. But it’s hard imagining anyone pulling harder at the heartstrings than Chicuelo’s current vocal collaborators, Tomás de Perrate and David Lagos. Indeed, hearing their tortured, soaring confessions – bookended by Faiz’s transcendent vocal improvisations – offered a glimpse of the clearest common link between these two most different musical languages. In many ways, the whole evening was a testament to the great powers – both technical and emotional – of the human voice.

Fittingly, it was a standing group encore, a chorus of seven voices huddled around a single mic, where the barriers finally came crumbling down.

• The Umsiyat concert series continues with a performance from Kudsi Erguner, at Mushrif Central Park on March 7. See abudhabievents.ae